Sexual exploitation of children – memoir from AU Summit

Vimbai Chinembiri reflects on the recent African Union summit to end child marriage and the exploitation of children.

help me

In one of the parallel sessions at one of the just ended First African Girls Summit on Ending Child Marriages in Africa, it emerged that the exploitation of children and especially young girls is purely commercial. Of course most communities and families have long lived under the assumption that a girl is a sign of wealth and marrying her off brings economic stability to a family. Furthermore so many beliefs oscillate around poverty being a major cause of early marriages.

Stop calling it ‘child marriage’

One thing to note before going further is that the African Union Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriages, Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda demanded that we should stop calling it marriage as this gives it a moral standing and a certain level of acceptability, instead it is abduction, rape and sexual harassment.

The economics of child marriage

Marrying off young girls is actually an economic expense to countries despite the belief that it brings wealth to families’ hence economic exploitation. A girl without an education is often married off and lives in poverty, health wise and academically, noting that young girls are often married off to older men with more sexual experience. An educated girl on the other hand is more likely to give back to her family and her community, her children will live in better conditions and will also attain a better standard of education.

Where are girls being exploited?

Minus the family set up, one of the issues that was raised was that governments need to have clear policies on regularising tourism activities in their countries. It emerged that within this sector many young girls are being used as commercial sex slaves, being abducted and trafficked to different countries thus destroying the prospects of future success.

Is the internet safe?

Cyber-crime was raised as an issue that needs quick attention in African countries as it has been neglected. Most African governments assume this is a western phenomenon but in Africa and Asia young girls are victims of cyber-crime and being used for commercial purposes. It is therefore important for governments to channel resources towards ensuring that there is expertise in tracking and nailing syndicates that prey on children on the internet.
One of the key issues also raised was that in humanitarian situations across the world, young girls are more likely to be exploited sexually for economic purposes.

But what should be done?

The challenge with most communities within African countries and some Asian countries is the tendency to prefer veiled messages about sex. One of the key recommendations was that sex should be spoken about openly to young people. This should be done without using code names for it or for body parts. This ensures that young people are aware of their bodies and are well informed and able to easily identify any form of harassment or exploitation.
A comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) package should be availed, not only to young girls but to teen mothers and child brides. Young women who are married off young often have no access to SRH services and this affects not only their health but also that of the children they give birth to. They are often abused and used to commercially gain spouses and in-laws through hard labour.
There is a need to ensure that there are protection units for young girls in war torn, drought or disaster struck countries. While figures on the sexual exploitation of young children in humanitarian situations were not available it emerged that this is a critical area that needs attention so as to protect children, especially young adolescent girls.

What others have done

At a community level it was impressive to learn that chiefs in some African communities have taken it upon themselves to end child marriages. We have to remember that most chiefs often benefit from child marriages by receiving tokens of appreciation. In Zambia some chiefs have introduced revocation of the Headmanship of any village head where a young girl is married off and seven headman have been sacked so far. One Chief has banned illicit beers in his communities. (He argues that these have contributed to broken homes that accelerate the abuse of young girls).
I long to see such initiatives in Zimbabwe

Conclusively

Listening to this and processing all this, I realised that truly often the marriage of young girls has everything to do with money. According to a NewsDay article, Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of child marriages in Africa, with about 31% of girls being married before their 18th birthday and another 4% before they turn 15.

May our hearts be softened so we can prioritise education over marriage.

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